Are San Jose Sharks just teasing us again?
St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock was analyzing the game of his own goalie Brian Elliott, but he could have been speaking for any number of NHL goalies. Part of the reason, Hitchcock explained, that Elliott has taken so long to regain his form from last season is that he missed the high-level instruction and preparation that comes during a normal NHL season. The long stretch of time away from the NHL and its structured practices and the lack of a real training camp resulted in a slow start for many goalies who didn't get an opportunity to sharpen their game in Europe.
Some, like Elliott, are just now rounding into form.
"Look at all the guys who just went and played shinny and look at how many are struggling," Hitchcock said. "You can't do that and play in this league."
Antti Niemi didn't have that problem. The Sharks goalie played in his native Finland for Pelicans Lahti, and then returned to North America with his goalie coach from Finland to stay sharp.
"[Niemi] worked with him, rented his own ice and spent a lot of time with him," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "He was fully prepared to play when the season started. I don't know if the other goaltenders around the league had that luxury."
While other goalies worked to find their games, Niemi was perfect in January with a 6-0 record, 1.95 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. His save percentage has seen the expected regression since then, but he's still at .922 for the season, good for No. 13 in the league.
"Just getting ready and getting a good start helped [with confidence]," Niemi said on Wednesday.
He's been especially effective at home, with a 13-1-4 record at HP Pavilion to go with a 1.75 GAA and .936 SP. He just might be the least talked about Vezina candidate in the league.
And when you're looking for reasons to believe in the Sharks, he's where you start. But really, there's not an NHL team that teases more than San Jose. Twice this year, the Sharks have rattled off seven-game win streaks, which is impressive. It's the games in between that are troubling. So which Sharks team will we see in the playoffs, the streaking Sharks or the team that couldn't execute basic fundamental details against the Blue Jackets this week?
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